As we learned from Christopher on “The Sopranos,” it’s hard to be an effective mobster when you’re also a fall-down drunk. In the dark comedy “You Kill Me,” Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley) learns this the hard way when he’s supposed to take out a rival wiseguy and falls asleep in his car instead. His bosses, displeased with his performance, order him into Alcoholics Anonymous at once. You hate to have your best hitman sidelined, but a drunk hitman doesn’t do anyone any good either.
There’s more comedy in the tale of a drunk assassin than you might expect, and a surprising amount of heart, too. The screenplay is by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who previously worked on the “Chronicles of Narnia” adaptation. I can only assume all that wholesomeness left them yearning to cut loose and get some foul-mouthed-mobster dialogue out of their systems.
The film begins in Buffalo, where the Polish mob (led by Philip Baker Hall) and the Irish mob (led by Dennis Farina) are always on the brink of war. Now the Irish are about to get in bed with the Chinese, which doesn’t bode well for the Polish. All the more reason to get Frank cleaned up and back in action ASAP.
Frank is sent across the country to San Francisco to do his rehabilitation, for reasons not thoroughly explained. There he’s put under the watchful eye of Dave (Bill Pullman), a Realtor who looks like he just got back from the 1950s and who reports back to Buffalo regularly. Frank also gets a job part-time at a local mortuary. He doesn’t mind. He finds it fascinating to see corpses at the end of their journey for once, instead of the beginning.
His bosses have told him he either has to quit drinking or retire from the business, and we all know how one “retires” from mob life. Having no other choice, Frank starts going to AA meetings, where he meets a nice guy named Tom (Luke Wilson) who becomes his sponsor. Tom is gay, but I think the only reason for that, from a filmmaker’s perspective, is so the audience won’t wonder why he isn’t hitting on Frank’s new girlfriend when the three of them start hanging out.
That new girlfriend is Laurel (Tea Leoni), an ad rep for a local TV station who doesn’t take “no” for an answer, which usually leads her to make poor choices when it comes to men. You are thinking that you can’t imagine Ben Kingsley with Tea Leoni, and I have to say, I just saw a movie where they were together and I can’t picture it it either.
Of course, we’re not meant to take much of the film very seriously anyway. Director John Dahl (“Rounders,” “Joy Ride”) keeps the tone light even when the subject matter is ostensibly serious. It is black comedy, after all, where things like death and murder and alcoholism are meant to be funny. The film’s very first images are of Frank’s peculiar method of shoveling the snow off his sidewalk, a process that involves vodka and a lot of short breaks.
The film is funny, mostly, thanks to Kingsley’s exhausted, booze-soaked performance as Frank, with nice support from Leoni, Pullman, and Wilson. And for as one-note as the characters are, and despite the film having a one-joke story, you can still feel a slight tug at the heartstrings when it comes time for the happy ending. Everyone deserves a second chance, right? Even guys who kill for a living.
B (1 hr., 32 min.; )